1: Birds and Dinosaurs: The Origin of Flight
Begin by contemplating the integral connections between birds and dinosaurs. Examine mounting evidence that birds not only evolved directly from dinosaurs, but also they are themselves dinosaurs. Consider how bipedal reptiles gained the ability to fly, becoming birds, and how the cursorial (from the ground) and arboreal (gliding) theories of the origin of flight may intersect.
2: Birds and Boeings: The Magic of Flight
Delve into the fascinating aerodynamics of bird flight. Grasp how a bird’s wings operate as an airfoil; study the forces of lift, weight, thrust, and drag, and how birds take off, land, and glide. Then explore the astonishing properties of bird feathers, as they control speed, altitude, and direction. Learn about the structure, the types, and the many roles of feathers in bird behavior.
3: Burning Bright: Avian Adaptations for Flight
Discover the remarkable physiological features of birds that undergird flight. First, note how and why feathers evolved. Then, investigate the high metabolism of birds—they must burn energy at an astounding rate. See how birds are adapted for flight by many weight-reducing factors, and how their respiratory, circulatory, and excretory systems, as well as heightened senses, keep them airborne.
4: Orientation, Navigation, Migration: Bird Road Trips
Take account of the miraculous feats of navigation performed by birds, as they migrate huge distances with amazing accuracy. Uncover the ways in which birds use visual landmarks, magnetic fields, Sun position, and the position of constellations in their migratory travels. Consider why birds migrate, the diversity of their migration patterns and habits, and the perils of these epic journeys.
5: Bird Brains: Tool Wielders and Snack Stealers
Humans have tended to underestimate the intelligence of birds. Examine the structure of the avian brain and the extraordinary forms of intelligence birds show, such as memory, complex spatial mapping, and ingenious strategies in food foraging. Observe the role of instinct in bird behavior, their astonishing use of tools, and how bird behavior is correlated with the seasons.
6: Birds of a Feather: Flocking and Foraging
Track the intriguing behavior of birds when they form flocks or colonies. Grasp the diverse benefits of group foraging, and how birds form mixed-species foraging flocks. Investigate group roosting and breeding behavior, and study fossil evidence that suggests some dinosaurs nested just like modern wading birds. Assess why birds form colonies and investigate the advantages and perilous disadvantages of the colonies.
7: Avian Turf Wars: Defending a Territory
Witness the complex nature of competition among birds. Study “display” behavior, which sends a message regarding territory, courtship, or perceived threats. Observe the ways in which birds defend territory, for breeding and feeding, nesting and roosting. Note how territorial defense is highly ritualized and uses a series of recognized signals, and how birds’ territoriality enhances survival.
8: Bird Songs and Calls: Music with a Message
Explore the multifaceted phenomenon of birdsong, distinguishing between birds’ songs and calls. Grasp the physics of song/call production, and how some birds can actually sing two songs at once. Learn about the innate versus the learned components of birdsong, how birds need to practice and perfect their songs, and the amazing variety of the individual and social functions of birdsong.
9: Avian Mating: Lady’s Choice
Compare models which may explain female birds’ choice of mates. Observe how females “test” potential mates and how males provide a basis for choice, through courtship displays or offering prime territory. Study the intricacies of avian monogamy and polygamy; take account of pair bonding in birds, extra-pair mating, sexual role reversal, and the avian equivalents of “adultery” and “divorce.”
10: Avian Mating: Singles Bars and Bachelor Pads
Investigate three forms of avian polygyny, where one male mates with several females, and the factors that make it a useful adaptation. Then discover “leks,” courtship arenas where males compete for mates, and witness the dramatic courtship displays of some male birds. Marvel at the Australian bowerbirds, who build elaborate, decorated structures whose only purpose is to attract a mate.
11: Nests and Eggs: A Home in the Sticks
Learn how birds mate; then examine the structure of bird eggs, how they are laid, and how laid eggs develop. Observe how nests are constructed, the diverse materials used to build them, the types and functions of nests, and the range of ingenious avian nesting behavior. Finally, explore how birds incubate their clutch, and study brood parasites, who lay eggs in the nests of other birds.
12: Parental Care: Bird Family and Friends
Close with a look at the hatching process and the contrasting conditions for altricial chicks (born naked and helpless) versus precocial chicks (born ready to leave the nest). Delve into how birds feed their young, and the process of educating fledglings for life in the wild. Study the adaptations of siblicide (nestlings killing each other), unmated young who help raise broods, and avian communal breeding.
What made this course special for me was how much I learned in the process of teaching it. You're never too old to learn.
About Bruce E. Fleury
Dr. Bruce E. Fleury (1950–2020) was a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. He earned a BA from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science and an MA in Library, Media, and Information Studies from the University of South Florida. His career as a college reference librarian led him to Tulane University, where he became head of the university library's Science and Engineering Division. He went on to earn an MS and a PhD in Biology, both from Tulane. Professor Fleury was the author of numerous articles and newspaper columns, both popular and professional, and a reference book on dinosaurs. He taught between 600 and 700 students a year, and his courses included ornithology, introductory general biology and environmental biology, the history of life, and evolution in human health and disease. His teaching awards included two awards for outstanding teaching from the Tulane chapter of the Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society and a Mortar Board "Last Lecture" Award, in which favorite professors are invited to give a lecture as if it were their last. Professor Fleury served as an advisor for Warner Brothers' space epic Green Lantern, working on several classroom and laboratory scenes and serving as a "consulting xenobiologist" on alien life.